Vladimir Putin wants to see Russia establish a naval base abroad for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In mid-November, the president ordered the Defense Ministry to sign an accord with Sudan. Along with the still-active Cold War-era Tartus facility in Syria, this would not only be the second Russian naval base in the Middle East and North Africa — a region that has become increasingly important for Moscow — but worldwide, apart from a fleet on the annexed Crimean Peninsula, which Kremlin officials do not currently consider extraterritorial.
Russia has struck a deal with Sudan to establish a naval base in the country, as Moscow seeks to expand its military reach in the Middle East and North Africa. The deal, made public on December 8 2020, allows Russia to station four ships and up to 300 personnel at Port Sudan on the Red Sea as part of a 25-year agreement. It will be Russia’s first naval base in Africa.
The base will be used as a logistics support center and repair and resupply point. The deal also gives Moscow the right to use Sudan’s airports for the transport of “weapons, ammunition and equipment” required to support the base.
Port Sudan is significantly smaller than the Russian base in Tartus, Syria—Moscow’s only other naval facility outside of the former Soviet Union—but it will give Russia a strategic foothold along the Red Sea, which links European and Asian waters and is one of the world’s busiest waterways. China established its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017 at the mouth of the Red Sea. (The only permanent U.S. military base on the continent is also in Djibouti.)
At various points during the Cold War, the Soviet Union had bases in the region in South Yemen, Somalia, and Ethiopia—but they were lost following the USSR’s collapse. Russian President Vladimir Putin has made restoring the country’s global military might a cornerstone of his two decades in power.
While Russia has sought to beef up its presence in the Mediterranean through its interventions in the conflicts in Syria and Libya, the Kremlin has also kept one eye on the Red Sea. Russian officials have previously probed the possibility of establishing a military foothold in Djibouti and Eritrea, although the talks didn’t progress.
Former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir raised the prospect of hosting a Russian base in the country during a 2017 meeting with Russian Defense Minister Sergi Shoigu. After Bashir’s ouster in 2019, the discussions continued with the head of Sudan’s Transitional Military Council. Moscow and Khartoum have long enjoyed a close relationship, and Russia is a major supplier of arms to the country.
The Wagner Group, private military security contractors that the U.S. State Department has characterized as a “surrogate” for the Russian Ministry of Defense, already has a well-established presence in Sudan. Two mining companies from the Wagner network, which is believed to be backed by Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, were sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury in July for formulating plans to suppress the pro-democracy demonstrations that toppled Bashir, including “the staging of public executions” to distract the protesters.
“Yevgeniy Prigozhin and his network are exploiting Sudan’s natural resources for personal gain and spreading malign influence around the globe,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement issued at the time.
Russian Arms Sale To Africa – Sudan Gateway
Since the 2000s, Russia has demonstrated a renewed interest in the African continent — trade and investment between Russia and African countries increased by 180% between 2005 and 2015.
Russia has also increased military and arms deals with African countries, as well as ones for energy and other natural resources. However, the location of the base in Port Sudan demonstrates an effort to project power beyond the continent to influence international commerce, restore its global naval presence and bolster its geostrategic foothold in the Middle East and North Africa.
Former chief of the Russian Navy’s General Staff retired Admiral Viktor Kravchenko, told Interfax in November that the base aimed to help restore Russia’s naval presence and increase the operational capabilities of the Russian fleet, particularly in a region of geo-strategic importance.
“Russia will have a base on the Red Sea. This is a tense region. The Russian naval presence there is necessary…Our ships are constantly in this region and we need a basing point there,” he said.
The Soviet Union had naval bases in the Red Sea and Horn of Africa, but today, Russia’s only major overseas naval base is in Syria. The US comparatively has naval bases in 18 countries, and China has one in Djibouti, but may be planning others. The war in Yemen prevented an attempted agreement for a base near the Bab al Mandab strait, while talks with Djibouti fell through due to the location Djibouti proposed for the base, as well as the prohibitive construction costs.
Russia then turned its focus to Sudan, with which it had been in talks regarding military and security cooperation for several years: when the former President of Sudan, Omar al Bashir, visited Moscow in 2017, the two countries agreed to launch “a program to modernise [Sudan’s] armed forces.” At the time, Bashir also said that he had discussed the possibility of setting up a Russian military base on the Red Sea.
“This is an expansion of opportunities for our fleet. It is time to restore our naval presence,” said another retired admiral, Vladimir Komoedov.
The area is rich in natural resources like gas and gold, and home to two critical choke points in global trade: the Suez Canal and the Bab al Mandab strait. Furthermore, in the past two decades, the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa have also become a location for foreign military base development and deployment.
Countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey, and Qatar have all established or planned naval and military bases in Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia, and Djibouti. Several non-regional powers—France, Japan, Russia, the United States, and Italy—also have military or support bases in the region. The presence of all these competing powers and interests has created a complex strategic order as they compete for regional hegemony.
Meanwhile, Asian giants, India and China, have increased their military footprints in the western Indian Ocean, further complicating strategic relations. China, a relative newcomer to the area, is establishing strategic relations with countries in the geography through the maritime aspect of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), called the Maritime Silk Road (MSRI).
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